Most people, whether they know it or not, are actually incredibly familiar with the sound of the Irish low whistle.
It gained huge attention in the 1990’s when it featured in Riverdance. This Irish dancing phenomenon took the world by storm, bringing both traditional Irish music and dance to new, exciting levels. Along with it went the low whistle in the hands of the mighty Davy Spillane:
This magical instrument reached the pinnacle of its fame however, when it featured on the main theme song for the 1997 movie, Titanic.
My Heart Will Go On delivered the mystical sounds of the low whistle to new audiences throughout the world. The iconic opening bars, recorded by Davy Spillane himself, on a Low E whistle are instantly recognisable. You’re probably even singing them to yourself as you read this. Ah go on, you might as well have a listen now:
This Celine Dion hit won the hearts of millions and unwittingly elevated this humble instrument to its current status as one of Ireland’s most famous instruments.
It’s funny how things work out. An ill fated ship, infamously built in Northern Ireland, that failed to reach its destination was indirectly responsible for catapulting one of Ireland’s traditional instruments to worldwide fame.
So what exactly is the low whistle and where did it come from?
- A Happy Accident: The Origin of the Modern Low Whistle
- Family of Tin: Soprano vs Alto vs Tenor Whistles
- The Iconic Sound
- Learning To Play The Low Whistle: the 3 Most Asked Questions
A Happy Accident: The Origin of the Modern Low Whistle
Though it gained commercial popularity in the ‘90s, the low whistle was actually first created in 1971, following the unfortunate demise of another iconic Irish musician’s prized instrument.
Bernard Overton, an English flute maker and jazz musician, is the original creator of the modern low whistle as we know it today.
His first model was built to replace an Indian bamboo whistle which belonged to none other than the legendary Finbar Furey (member of famous Irish folk group, The Fureys). Finbar’s poor whistle was destroyed when someone sat on it in a pub in Coventry, England. A harsh reminder to always mind your instruments when playing at a session.
Overton referred to this first model as a “Tenor D Flageolet”, but it became known as a “low D” or “low whistle”. Which is a bit catchier in fairness.
Just think, if not for the carelessness of a British backside, the low whistle as we know and love it might not exist today!
Finbar Furey played his new instrument extensively while on tour and soon Overton was so overwhelmed with requests for more whistles, that he created the “Overton” brand. His became the standard by which all other low whistles were (and still are) judged.
Overton continued to make these beautiful instruments, right up until his death in 2008, after which his apprentice, Colin Goldie continued on his craft.
If you can get your hands on an original Overton, they are beautiful instruments and well worth the treasure hunt.
Family of Tin: Soprano vs Alto vs Tenor Whistles
As you’ve probably guessed at this stage, the tin whistle and low whistle are members of the same family.
Modern tin whistles come in various sizes and a variety of different keys. The higher the key, the smaller the instrument, the lower the key, the larger the instrument. Soprano, Alto and Tenor are simply terms which refer to the key or range the whistle plays in.
You can read more about these classifications in my handy Irish Whistle Buyer’s Guide.
The low whistle and soprano tin whistle are technically the same instrument. The low D model is simply tuned an octave lower than the soprano D. Therefore, the body is wider and twice as long.
Like its soprano and alto counterparts, the low whistle also comes in a variety of keys, such as C, Eb and E. The most popular however is the standard low D as D major is arguably the most commonly used key in traditional Irish music.
Some makers have taken things to the extreme and now produce whistles in even lower ranges, such as this Bass G by Colin Goldie. A magnificent feat of engineering, but I’m not sure I’d fancy trying to stretch my fingers that far. What do you think?
The Iconic Sound
The sound of the low whistle is deeper, moodier and far more mellow than that of its soprano counterpart. It is also associated with a much more experimental and exciting sound than its more conservative cousin.
Irish tin whistle playing has evolved drastically over the last few decades, with many exciting virtuoso players taking the instrument to exciting new levels while pushing the boundaries of traditional Irish music.
As a result, the low whistle has built up quite a reputation as the instrument of choice for modern trailblazers. Have a listen to the below track from The John McSherry Band which will give you an idea of some of the boundary busting, genre transcending, fusion inspired music of which this humble instrument is now king. You can also very helpfully hear the difference between the low and soprano whistles.
Learning To Play The Low Whistle: the 3 Most Asked Questions
If you’re curious about the low whistle, you might be interested in picking one up to try it for yourself. To offer a little guidance, I’ve created a short FAQ. Here you’ll find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions potential buyers usually have.
You can also check out my handy Irish Whistle Buyer’s Guide which offers further guidance and information.
I have small hands/fingers. Can I play the low whistle?
It depends on just how small your hands really are!
There are also a few other factors at play:
- What key whistle are you trying to play?
- How large of a space is there between the holes?
- How large is the diameter of the holes?
Most low D’s require a bit of a finger stretch to cover all the holes, especially the bottom three. The distance between these three holes can vary considerably per maker.
In an ideal world, you would simply try out different makes or models until you find the one that suits you best. This is difficult when buying online however.
Most makers are more than happy to measure instruments for you.
To measure your hand, you’ll need to spread your fingers out as far as you can comfortably separate them. Then, measure the distance between the middle of your index finger and the tip of your ring finger. You can then compare this with the measurements from the maker.
If your hands do not fit a low D, don’t despair. All is not lost! Whistles come in a range of shapes and sizes. A higher pitch low whistle (or alto) such as an F whistle is smaller in size and the holes are closer together. It will still give you that beautiful, haunting, mellow sound associated with the low whistle, but without the painful stretch. Bear in mind though, most sessions play in D.
Another possible solution is to adapt the piper’s grip. This grip involves playing with flattened fingers, with the fingertips extended beyond the tone holes. You can learn more about it here: My handy guide to the piper’s grip.
Should I learn the soprano tin whistle before I learn the low whistle?
There’s no right or wrong answer to this question. It’s really a personal preference. Younger players might find it easier to learn on a smaller soprano whistle first. If you really have your heart set on the low whistle however, there’s no problem at all with diving right in. With the right instrument in hand you’ll be on your way in no time!
What is the best low whistle for a beginner?
A higher quality, well-made instrument is going to sound better and be easier to play. You’ll be more motivated to practice if you’re making a pleasant sound right from the start.
With this in mind, my current recommendation for a low whistle that would be good for a beginner is a Kerry Optima Tuneable Low D or a Setanta Low D Whistle.
If budget is an issue however, or you’re not totally sold yet on the idea of becoming a revolutionary low whistle player, then the Tony Dixon Polymer Low Whistle or Tuneable Low D Whistle are perfect for any beginner.
When you’re ready to advance and take your playing to the next level, you can always invest in a new instrument then.
[Featured image: RTÉ ]